Bing Crosby & Matty Melneck
Bing Crosby: A Centennial Anthology Of His Decca Recordings
This week’s episode of my podcast was a particularly fun one. It was a holiday special in which I explained, in terms so plain as to guarantee their assent, that “White Christmas” is a terrible, terrible movie. You might not even be aware that in America, I am the sole registrar and authority regarding the list of Classic Movies. The fact that you’re not aware of this underscores the care and caution with which I wield that power. This podcast episode will remain as my public statement of record as to my findings regarding this particular and peculiar movie, and why its Classic status is, and forever shall be, revoked.
Part of my argument is the fact that this movie had such wonderful vocal talent on the payroll and yet it made such poor use of them. The film’s songs were all taken from the Irving Berlin songbook — no shortage of fab tunes there — but I think Paramount decided to save some money and pick up a few end-trims and seconds from the Irving Berlin Factory Outlet Store out by the municipal airport. They’re not what you’d call…well, “good.”
Rosemary Clooney gets a great solo number. But what about Bing Crosby? Nuh-uh. He’s always either paired up, and never with the one real singer. He and Clooney get barely one verse of one song together.
Many of you have seen “White Christmas” this year. It pains me to imagine that you haven’t been Binged good and properly so here’s one of the best recordings he ever made. “Stardust” helped put Crosby on the map and it defined him as A Lad Who Had Figured Out Something New. Have you ever watched musicals from the Thirties and wondered why so many of the leading men sang in this weird style and tone that nobody else uses? So did I. Then someone explained to me that this was, in fact, a style of popular singing that was going out of date even then.
This clip from an MGM is a pleasant little clip but behind the scenes, it was a true Mortal Kombat-style head to head battle between a young, up-and-coming “old-style” singer and a young, up-and-coming “jazz-style” singer.
According to a documentary I once saw, MGM executives were using this short as a data point to help them figure out where to lead the music department. The winner was the jazz singer on the left. First prize was ten years of child slavery, a massive pill addiction, and profoundly-embedded attachment issues.
Bing is often credited with being the one who pushed popular singing into the Jazz style. He’s usually cited as the most influential voice of his generation. “Stardust” shows why. After you’ve listened to this recording, wouldn’t you want to sound this cool?
The song itself is positively enchanting.
It’s a song about remembering a song, a construction that predates “Inception” by more than three quarters of a century. That’s kind of the right way to think of it: this song presents itself to me as a puzzle. There’s a fragile beauty to it and an elegant structure. That’s plain to hear. But what is that structure?
It’s not your basic Verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus/verse kind of song. The vocalist seems to piece the song together like a bird building a nest. It’s clear what it’s up to, and the shape presents itself early, but it’s coming in from all kinds of places with all kinds of things.
I keep trying to figure it out, and failing. Maybe that’s why I like it so much. No matter how often I play it, it keeps engaging me.
It’s profoundly a “stop what you’re doing and listen” song. It’s the song of the faraway look, of the memory that lingered in the back storeroom for years before suddenly dropping back into your awareness, of the smile for which the explanation “Oh, this awesome song just came up on Shuffle Play” seems weak and unconvincing and so you find yourself claiming to have been reflecting on a particularly jocund fart joke from this week’s “Family Guy.”
In a nutshell: this is not a song that should be on any playlist you intend to listen to while driving.
The time I spent on Amazon looking for the version I had in my iTunes library taught me something else: there’s a certain alchemy about this song. It’s the perfect performance matched to the perfect arrangement. A lesser producer — even a Sinatra producer — sees the word “Stardust,” grabs the Yellow Pages, and immediately turns to the “C”s.
“Hello, is this ‘Crapload Of Strings’? Hi, yes, I need a whole crapload of strings to play on this record I’m recording tomorrow…oh, great. While I have you on the line, do you have the number for ‘Holy Mother Of God, Do We Have A Lot Of String Players’ handy? Because I’m not sure that the 80 violinists you have are going to be quite enough…”
Not even all of the Bing Crosby recordings are winners. “Stardust” is a delicate balance. But this Decca recording from a 2003 Centennial Collection is the real winner of the bunch.
Try or buy “Stardust” from the Amazon MP3 Store. Anything you buy after clicking that link results in my getting a small kickback in the form of Amazon store credits…which I shall spend on glorious foolishness.